petr prucha

The Story So Far…

With the benefit of reflection (and a good deal of hindsight) I have come to the conclusion that last year indeed was a fluke.  The planets aligned, it was a perfect storm…call it what you will, but the Rangers finally had fortune on their side and that, more than anything else, enabled them to have such a successful season.  Now you might ask how I can be so dismissive of a season in which the head coach, leading scorer and goaltender were all nominated for league awards?  If you can bear to indulge me a little, I am prepared to share my conclusions.

With respect to comedy, they say timing is everything, and so it was for the 2005-06 Blueshirts.  Just like the 1993-94 Stanley Cup has been often attributed to the influx of veterans from the Edmonton Oilers dynasty of the late 80s, much of last season’s success can be attributed to a core of Czech players who had played and had success together both in the NHL and on the international stage.  The Czech Rangers, as they were sometimes referred to instantly brought a ready made core to a team that was decidedly lacking one.  Unlike many of their North American counterparts, almost all the Rangers leading players had played the lockout year in Europe and played a style of offense conducive to taking advantage of power play situations and the stricter enforcement of interference.

When you add in the remarkable health that the team had through the first 50-60 games, three key rookies all coming off seasons playing against sub-NHL level competition in Europe and the missteps of other teams as they sought to understand what the new Salary Cap and rules meant to the team, and you had a recipe for success.  That is of course not to say that Tom Renney, Jaromir Jagr and Henrik Lundqvist played insignificant roles, but ultimately the bottom line is that they did indeed have a good year and now it’s time to build on that success.

#1 – Improve the offense
Last season there was only one player who contributed a higher percentage of the team’s goals than Jaromir Jagr.  While you might expect the Capitals to be okay with Alexander Ovechkin leading their team by such a wide margin, it was clear that the Rangers who lacked such top end prospect talent, needed to do something in order to distribute the offense a little more evenly and hedge against potential injuries to their star.  Petr Prucha’s 30 goals and another 16 each by Martin Rucinsky and Petr Sykora in shortened seasons were certainly helpful, but the center position and blueline struggled.  Second line center Steve Rucchin managed just 13 goals and the blueline combined for a total of 23 goals on the year, and only 11 of those came at even strength.

#2 – Add some “North-South” players
There’s no doubt the European influence was fun to watch when they were on, but when the power play stopped working or the offense struggled, there weren’t many other options.  A one dimensional power play that featured Jagr going for the slap/snap/wrist shot from inside the face-off circles, eventually became too predictable, while too many passes in the latter stages of the season possibly cost the Rangers a game or two and a chance to win the division.

#3 – Add some speed
The Rangers are probably just an average team when it comes to skating, and probably below average on defense.  While speed isn’t everything, there are some advantages to having players who can break free with the elimination of the two-line pass rule and the restrictions on interference that are now being forced.  Improving speed on the blueline would also perhaps help the Rangers create offense, as well as help reduce pressure on an opponent’s rush up the ice.

#4 – Add some toughness
Darius Kasparaitis was the only Rangers defenseman who really would use the body to make it tough for players to carry the puck or receive passes in the defensive zone.  When he has been out injured in the past two NHL seasons, the Rangers defense has looked a whole lot less intimidating, which is not to say that Kasparaitis was a menacing presence, as much as that the remainder of the blueline was decidedly less so.  Up front the situation was much the same, with only fourth liners Ryan Hollweg and Jed Ortmeyer along with depth forward Colton Orr providing much of a challenge on the physical side of the puck.

#5 – Improve the performance in the face-off circle
Last season only one regular Rangers centerman was over 50% in the face-off circle.  Blair Betts easily lead the Rangers in that statistic, and only part timers Petr Prucha and Jason Ward really came close.  Face-off wins can help generate offense, as well as relieve pressure.

So how has the team done so far…

The addition of Brendan Shanahan (despite his age), actually appears to be a good one…and perhaps will work out better for the Rangers than Bill Guerin would have.  The former Red Wing brings another offensive threat, particularly on the power play where his right handed shot will no doubt be put to good use, and is willingness to shoot as well as drive to the net will be a welcome addition to the Rangers.  Even at 37, Shanahan has good speed and he won’t back down or be intimidated by physical play.  Ironically perhaps there is a potential downside for Petr Prucha with this signing.  Prucha benefited greatly from playing with Jagr on the power play, a position he will no doubt give up to the more experienced Shanahan.  As a result the young Czech might find goals harder to come by this year and the total net gain, when you factor in the two players might be less dramatic.

Less obvious are the benefits that Matt Cullen brings to the table.  Some have suggested that Cullen is the type of player who has benefited from the new rules.  His above average skating and a season playing in the Italian league during the lockout, were enough to re-energize his career.  Coming off a career year, the Rangers will certainly be looking for him to help out, not only on offense and distributing the puck, but also killing penalties and improving the team’s performance in the face-off circle.  Like Rucchin, Cullen does not really bring much in the way of physical play, and there are some questions as to whether his face-off statistics from last season are a little inflated.

Back on the blue line New York has brought back Karel Rachunek and added Aaron Ward.  Looking at the current line-up, it appears the Rangers will be looking to Rachunek to supplement their offense from the defensive corps, particularly if Ozolinsh continues to struggle and is unable to remain in the line-up.  Rachunek has fairly unimpressive numbers so far in his career, but is coming off a season in Russia where he lead the league in offense amongst defensemen.  It’s also no doubt hoped, that the Czech will benefit from playing with the likes of Jagr, Nylander and Straka…especially on the man advantage.  By contrast, Aaron Ward is the type of player who will help harden the Rangers defense.  He won’t contribute much on the offensive side, but he will help balance the load with Darius Kasparaitis and will perhaps enable the Rangers to battle a little more in front of their own net.  Though he is not as slow as Kasparaitis and Malik, Ward is not a speedster by any means and does nothing to improve team speed.

What remains…

It seems unlikely that the Rangers will look to add any more regulars to the roster, with perhaps the exception of Martin Rucinsky.  There are no obviously open roster spots at this stage, but the configuration of the lines, and perhaps a spot or two may open up when camp opens.  The Rangers have not dramatically improved the team’s toughness or speed, though on the face of it the offense looks a little more balanced if you factor in the expected improvement by some of the younger third and fourth line players, along with Tyutin and Rachunek.

It’s interesting to see that after years of instability, the roster has remained relatively stable so far this year.  This alone could be one of those advantages that is not immediately apparent when you look at the roster on paper, but ultimately could be the difference in the season ahead. 

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